After seeing the upcoming film Seabiscuit, you’ll be inspired to head out to the track to find your own winning horse. We don’t dare tell you what filly to bet on, but here are a few great places to catch a race.
At any horse track across the country, during any decade of the century, and in any of the 10 or so races that day, the scene is the same. Throngs of people with betting stubs clutched in hand gravitate toward the finish line, hoping their horse gets there first. For about two minutes, they root like it’s the bottom of the ninth, the last-second shot, and a Hail Mary pass all at once.
Some of the people just shout numbers because they don’t know the name of their horse. “Get up, No. 8! Get up!” they say, because they’ve bet on the outside post position knowing, at that track, the turf favors horses away from the rail. Other people only know the name of their chosen steed. They bet on that horse because it has the same name as their neighbor’s cat or rhymes with the city they grew up in. But for whatever reason or rationale, profitable or not, all of them have their pick. Only rarely does everyone agree on which horse to root for, like the crowd did for Seabiscuit.
It’s hard to imagine just how famous one horse can be, but Laura Hillenbrand made it easier to do two years ago with her bestselling book Seabiscuit: An American Legend. The story takes us back to the late 1930s, when Americans, still struggling through the Depression and on the brink of war, were desperate for a hero. They found an unlikely one in Seabiscuit, a nearly forgotten, ordinary-looking horse with crooked legs that could run forever. Seabiscuit was a cultural icon, garnering more news coverage than Franklin D. Roosevelt or Hitler in 1938. Seabiscuit is one of the most famous horses ever to cross the wire.
This summer, the legend will live on. Hillenbrand’s book is the source material for the highly anticipated movie version, which opens July 25. In it, Tobey Maguire stars as Red Pollard, the down-on-his-luck jockey who finds a new life in Seabiscuit’s saddle. Jeff Bridges plays the horse’s owner, Charles Howard, an automobile baron who once announced that the era of the horse was dead. And Oscar-winner Chris Cooper is the enigmatic trainer Tom Smith, whose relationship with the horse was almost mystical.
Of course, the star of the movie is Sea-biscuit himself. In actuality, 10 different horses were used to play the part, each one capturing a different characteristic of the original: one to pose nicely for the photos, one to tease the workout horses, one to lounge lazily in the stables. But just as they needed more than one horse, the producers needed more than one racetrack to make the based-on-a-true-story movie seem all the more real. Scenes from Seabiscuit were shot at Saratoga Race Course in Saratoga Springs, New York; Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California; and Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky. (Of course, the video screens and advertisements that litter the racetracks today had to be obscured to re-create the look of more than 60 years ago.)
For serious horseplayers, tracks like Saratoga, Santa Anita, and Keeneland are their chapels, built in honor of the religion of prognostication. For less-enthused gamblers, a day at the races can still be a day to remember. You don’t have to bet to cheer on a horse, and you don’t even have to win to have a good time. It’s about enjoying the thrill of the race in a beautiful setting surrounded by a colorful cast of characters.
Race enthusiasts have been spending their summers at Saratoga’s betting windows for almost 140 years, making it the oldest racecourse in America. Used as a stand-in for Tanforan, the California track that no longer exists, and as the backdrop for the scene in the movie where trainer and horse meet for the first time, Saratoga is popular for its idyllic locale amid the Adirondack Mountains. Sports Illustrated went so far as to name it one of the top 20 venues in the 20th century, pointing out the allure of the striped awnings, old wooden clubhouse and grandstand, and the paddock shaded by elms.
Santa Anita is a must-visit, too, if only as homage to history. In 1940, after two photo-finish losses and a year off due to injury, Seabiscuit finally won the Santa Anita Handicap. It was his last race, witnessed by almost 70,000 people, and the biggest sports story of the year. Then, as now, it’s no wonder so many people flocked there. Santa Anita is a beautifully scenic track. The grandstand is an art-deco masterpiece surrounded by lush green lawns and colorful gardens, and the San Gabriel Mountains stand majestically in the background.
With the largest average daily purse in the country, Keeneland attracts some of the best horses running today. But with its classic, timeless appeal, the track attracted the movie’s producers to shoot the famous match race of 1938, when Seabiscuit squared off against Triple Crown winner War Admiral. The pivotal duel actually took place at Baltimore, Maryland’s Pimlico Race Course, but that track had become too modernized for the producers’ purposes. Keeneland, designed in the late 1930s, is known for its parklike setting. Dogwoods, crab apples, Yoshino cherries, sycamores, Chinese elms, pin oaks, and maples are as abundant as fillies, mares, colts, and maidens.
Thanks to horses like Seabiscuit, these places are hallowed with history, but racetracks all across the country are burgeoning with excitement as new throngs of people crowd the rails to get a better look at their horse. Who knows? The next Seabiscuit may be running in the fifth race at a track near you. He might even have the same name as your neighbor’s cat.
THE RACE IS ON
Check out these fabled racetracks where Seabiscuit was filmed:
KEENEELAND RACE COURSE
(800) 456-3412, www.keeneland.com
Fall season runs October 3-25.
SANTA ANITA PARK
(626) 574-7223, www.santaanita.com
Runs September 28-November 9 andDe-cember 26-late April.
SARATOGA RACE COURSE
Saratoga Springs, New York
(518) 584-6200, www.nyra.com/saratoga/
Runs July 23-September 1.
These tracks are also good places to spend — er, win — some money:
Elmont, New York
(516) 488-6000, www.nyra.com/belmont/#
Home to the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown. Runs May 7-July 20 and September 5-October 26.
(800) 283-3729, www.churchilldowns.com
Home of the Kentucky Derby, the steeples alone are like icons of the sport. Runs April 26-July 6 and October 26-November 29.
LONE STAR PARK
Grand Prairie, Texas
(972) 263-7223, www.lonestarpark.com
One of the country’s newest parks and the site of the 2004 Breeders’ Cup (October 30), eight races with purses totaling $13 million. Runs April 3-July 13. Quarter horse racing runs October 3-November 29.
PIMLICO RACE COURSE
(410) 542-9400, www.marylandracing.com
Site of the Preakness Stakes. Runs April 2-June 8 and September 3-October 4.
For more information on the nearly 100 U.S. racetracks, visit the National Thoroughbred Racing Association at www.ntra.com.